"No." Nate's eyes grew cold. "You're compromised. I'll cover."
That got through to Clay as nothing else could have. His loyalty to DarkRiver was what kept him on the right side of the line. Take that away and he'd be a stone-cold killer. Especially now that Talin had cut his heart right out of him. "Point taken."
"You're still off tomorrow." Nate held out a hand. "Come on."
After a dangerous pause in which the leopard rose to crouching readiness, hungry for violence, Clay accepted the offer and let one of the few men he called friend haul him upright. The floor spun. "Shit. I'm drunk." He slung an arm around Nate's shoulders.
"You think, Sherlock?" Dorian appeared to prop up his other side. "Man, it must've cut you up that your girl only likes other girls."
"What?" Nate stumbled, threatening to take them all down.
Clay bared his teeth. "She likes men" - another surge of fury - "just not pretty boys like you."
Dorian began to scowl. "Smart-ass. Wait till the next time I see her."
Clay was about to reply when the hard alcohol caught up with him, his changeling body deciding it would be better if he slept off the drunk.
Max arrived with a crime scene team half an hour after Talin's call. By then, she'd taken the chance to wash away her tears, thinking clearly enough to buy bottles of cold water from the vending machine on the ground floor instead of going in and using her own sink.
"Did you touch anything?" Max asked after looking over the scene, his uptilted eyes and olive skin giving his face an exotic cast.
Clay's skin was darker than Max's, she found herself thinking even as she shook her head. "Nothing but the door and the bit of carpet around it."
"Good." He nodded at the crime scene techs.
Talin watched dispassionately as the white-garbed men and women walked in, their shoes enclosed in protective booties, their hair and clothing covered to minimize contamination. "They won't get anything. It might look like a teenage prank, but this was a slick operation."
Max walked her a small distance from the open doorway of her apartment. "You're probably right. But this is bad, Talin. One of my men is changeling - his nose tells him that that's definitely human blood."
She felt her fingers curl into claws. "It'll be from one of the children." The monsters were playing mind games, sickening, brutal, and without conscience.
Max didn't bother to dispute her claim. "What bothers me is that they know how hard you've been pushing the investigation."
"Enforcement is a sieve," she muttered.
"Yeah." An uncharacteristically bitter look clouded his expression. "If I hadn't been born with airtight mental shields, I'd probably have made captain by now."
She rubbed a hand over her face. "Psy spies can't read you?"
"No. But that doesn't make any difference here." He put his hands on his hips, below his trench coat. "Council plants are simply the most obvious. We've got others who think nothing of selling information for profit."
Dropping her hand, she shook her head. "Why stay in such a corrupt system?"
"Because we do more good than harm," he said, his dedication clear. "The Psy don't interfere in most investigations, especially not when it involves the other races."
"Maybe not," she agreed, "but they still treat humans as a lesser species. It makes me wonder why they let us live at all."
"Every society needs its worker bees." The dry sarcasm in Max's words didn't negate their truth. "We do all the jobs they can't be bothered with. But we can't blame the Psy for the lack of support in this case. This is because of plain old human prejudice. People see the victims, their lifestyles, and make judgments."
"What use is Enforcement if it ignores those who need it most?" She knew Max didn't deserve her anger, but God, she was mad. "These are children, most of whom have no one else to speak for them."
Max's jaw locked tight. "I prefer the changeling way sometimes," he said, to her surprise. "You hit one of them, you get executed. End of story."
Her stomach twisted. "Who does the executions?"
"The high-level guys in the predatory packs."
High-level guys like Clay. Talin wasn't going to lie to herself - she wanted to kill these bastards, too - but the reminder of the brutality implicit in Clay's world made her break out in a cold sweat.
You always knew what I was. You chose not to think about it, chose to pretend I was what you wanted me to be.
She'd refuted his assessment but now wondered if he hadn't been right. Had she given lip service to accepting his leopard, while expecting him to be human - exactly as his mother had done? The realization fractured the already shaky foundation of her current emotional state. Shoving her hair off her face, she forcibly contained her confusion and focused on something she could understand. "When can I have my place back?"
Max shook his head. "You can't stay here, you know that. You need to be in protective custody."
"No." The last time she'd run, she'd lost all claim to the only man who had ever seen goodness in her.
"Talin, don't be stupid. If these people" - he jerked his head toward her apartment - "think you're getting too close, they won't stop with a warning."
"I know." She stared back at him. "I'll be fine. I know how to take care of myself." No more hiding. No more cowering in the corner while someone else fought for her.
Max threw up his hands, having learned his lesson after butting heads with her more than once. "At least find a safer place to stay. This apartment isn't secure enough to deter anyone determined to break in. Do you have somewhere to go?"